Posted by Rampant Coyote on August 9, 2012
When I began work on Frayed Knights, I had a lot of big ideas about designing role-playing games. A lot of these big ideas – like a complex conversation system – were excised early in the process because they really didn’t fit the game. Some were eliminated later because I wanted to, uh… finish the game before I died of old age. That kind of thing.
One concept that made it’s way into the final release that, in retrospect, I’m still not 100% sure about involved the fundamentals of the combat system – which in turn influenced the entire game system. This takes a little bit of explaining, but the short version is that I wanted to downplay the importance of levels, and increase the importance of numbers and teamwork. The idea here was to bring in a tiny amount of “realism” – including some experiences I’d had with live medieval reenactment in my youth – as well as some influence from classic fantasy and science fiction stories. I can’t even remember the story (or the author), but I remember a scene from a Conan story or novel where he was cornered by several soldiers. One, two, maybe even three soldiers would not be too large of a problem for Conan. But when faced with… I think it was seven… with no way to escape he had no choice but to surrender.
In D&D, a high-level character like Conan would have no problem taking on a dozen 1st or 2nd level soldiers, even with a crappy armor class. Thanks to hit point scaling, and Conan’s high chance to hit (not to mention damage bonuses from feats / class abilities, in later editions), the soldiers couldn’t do enough damage to him fast enough before he’d taken them all out. With some clever maneuvering, he could probably still escape with more than half of his hit points intact. This was worse in later editions of D&D than the more recent ones. Especially with the earliest editions, when “high level” was only around 6th or 8th level. (Do you know how long it took me to realize that “mid-level” was around 10th in 3.0?)
I had a bunch of ideas for making an RPG more “realistic” (there’s that word again, gonna quit using it now) in this respect, and I still think they were great ideas for an RPG. But maybe they were not so great for a game with such deep roots in traditional RPGs (which were themselves deeply rooted in classic D&D game rules) like Frayed Knights. I love the way they play, but it does feel a little “off” for a lot of players. Anyone who has played through Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon can tell you that many “boss battles” seem relatively trivial compared to fighting large numbers of enemies. This is also why most of the “bosses” in Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon are encountered with minions. Solo, even the toughest bosses can be relative pushovers.
At one point, it was even more extreme. Mid-way through development, I’d tweaked the rules a bit in the opposite direction, to give levels a bit more of a positive bias. Once upon a time, even at the highest levels, your party would be in serious trouble from an army of pus golems.
So what sort of things did I do to “flatten out” leveling for a more … I won’t say ‘realistic’ again in this context, let’s say ‘verisimilitudinous’ instead… experience?
1) I Flattened Out the Probability Curve: Traditionally, differences in relative skill in RPGs follow a bell-curve. Near the center, when levels or skills are pretty evenly matched, you’ll get the majority of results. When you are throwing multiple dice – like an attacker’s roll versus a defender’s role, or rolling 3D6 for results – with some kind of additive or relative comparison – you’ll end up with something kind of bell-curve like. What this means is that within a relatively close window of values, you’ll have a very interesting fight, with plenty of possibilities for an underdog to get lucky, but still strongly favoring the stronger participant over successive rounds. But as those relative strengths diverge, the stronger competitor completely overwhelms the lesser. In Frayed Knights, I greatly flattened out the bell curve. So instead of this:
You get something more like this:
(I free-handed these graphs for illustrative purposes, so don’t try and read too much into them).
So an eight-point difference between being four points weaker than your opponent and four points higher than your opponent is still quite significant – a 32% chance of success versus a 68% chance of success! But the differences quickly flatten out beyond that. That same eight-point difference between being +16 higher than your opponent and +24 higher than your opponent is minor - around a 92% chance of success versus a 95% chance. The end result is that being overwhelmingly more powerful than your opponent doesn’t give you a linearly overwhelming advantage over your opponent. If it was down to a single probability check, if you had a 15 level advantage over your opponent, one in twelve would still defeat you.
While multiple cumulative die rolls means you don’t have to worry about insta-kills from trivial enemies, it does mean that against a sizable force, some hits are GOING to get through, and you can’t rely on level differences to protect you.
2) I reduced hit point scaling: In old-school D&D, a 3rd level character would have about three times the hit points – and thus be three times harder to kill – than her first-level counterpart. In Frayed Knights, increasing skill levels contributes a much smaller bonus to your base hit points. I did the same thing with endurance as well. This mainly evened out the lower-level encounters. It also made balancing the effects and costs of spells (and enhancements) a serious pain in the butt.
3) Positioning of the enemies (and party) is important. Like most of these factors, I can’t claim this one is completely original – many first-person RPGs of the classic era that inspired Frayed Knights used an abstract positioning system that provided some protection to the rear ranks of monsters, as they are harder to get at. The trick, however, is effective positioning of the bad guys, as their numbers can work against them just as easily if the rear-rank opponents cannot use their best abilities against the party. For planned encounters, this was easy to arrange, but the randomly generated encounters and patrols might occasionally be put together in a less-than-optimal fashion.
4) Combat is front-loaded. The “endurance” factor – a resource that must be expended in combat – means that characters will be more potent in the beginning of a fight than later (in a prolonged battled). In practice, since the monsters aren’t expected to survive more than a few turns anyway, this means the bad guys are at their best early in the fight – before the party has been able to whittle away at their numbers. There are a few exceptions, especially with groups with serious “buffing” characters in the ranks – but as there’s no point in the enemies holding anything back (unlike the party), a larger force means lots of incoming fire for the first couple of turns. I also included some position-dependent passive feats – like “Linebacker” – which provide more bonuses to an entire group (or in Linebacker’s case, the group behind the character with the feat).
5) Lots of party-enhancing spells and abilities. This mechanic wasn’t a deliberate attempt to enhance the threat of greater numbers, but it worked out that way. The end result is that many spells (which the monsters can use) act as a multiplier on the group’s combat abilities. So while it’s probably not worthwhile for one guy to sacrifice an attack to buff himself, a group buff on a large group can be devastating if used early.
6) Lots of individual-crippling spells and abilities. My choice to put the “sleep” spell as an early spell choice really influenced this one. What this came down to was that it’s really easy to use spells or magic items to keep one or two enemies on the ropes, unable to act effectively. This makes facing only one or two opponents really easy.
7) Offensive group-based spells cost spell gems. This wasn’t always the case, either. But perhaps because all of these other factors made groups of enemies so potent, a spell that affects groups of enemies was correspondingly powerful as well. Too powerful, without making it cost an additional resource.
8) I refused to make the bosses cheat. Mostly. One of the things that drives me crazy about some RPGs – especially JRPGs – is that the boss monsters are often virtually or totally immune to major debilitating spells (like the kind I mentioned in point 6). Blindness? Silence? Sleep? Fuggedaboutit. There’s no explanation – they are simply immune to most clever tricks because they are supposed to be awesome and challenging. I took the more traditional western RPG approach to the big bads, which means that concentrated fire can disable or destroy them without much more effort than any other opponent.
9) Decent teamwork AI. This one is actually pretty funny. I made the mistake of doing a lot of the enemy balancing when the AI was effectively acting at random every turn. This caused unsurprisingly inconsistent results. An encounter might be trivial four times out of five, but devastating on the fifth try, as the enemies used their abilities in something resembling a strategy. Not wasting a turn healing an unwounded companion, for example. Once I started giving the AI something resembling brains, however, things turned nasty quickly. The enemies became frustratingly nasty with very little logic and tactics. For a strategy or war game, they’d be great, but for an RPG, they were not much fun. They’d pull the same kind of tactics that would serve a player – focus on suppressing the spellcasters, and whittling down the party numbers by concentrating fire on one player character at a time. It was very difficult to finish a combat against some enemies without at least one party member incapacitated. And this was with the AI still doing some really stupid moves a lot of the time!
So I actually had to tone down the AI and make them more “dramatically responsible” rather trying their best to beat or cripple the player’s party. Yet even that wasn’t good enough, and I had to tone them down more. One tester completed the game on one of the intermediate builds where the AI was only somewhat toned down from its most-brutal level (and still making more stupid mistakes than they do now…) I have to give him credit – even *I* did not try to play through the whole game at that punishing level. Anyway, the AI was further gimped to use their “Brains” score to make decisions, to be “more random” (again) in their choices, and to more heavily weight actions that would challenge the player rather than just send them back to the inn to restore incapacitated party members. So, for example, they’ll now prefer to hurt an uninjured party member than finish off a wounded one.
But while the AI is far from perfect, they do apply some tactics to enhance each other’s fighting ability, to form something resembling teamwork. Sometimes.
Although I made some later changes to tilt the balance a little more back in the traditional direction, as it stands Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon has a different flavor of combat from most other RPGs of its style. In recognition of this, the game even awards an experience point bonus for facing larger groups – so facing six goblin Whitelisted Mages as a group is worth more experience points than six far-easier battles against them one at a time.
I personally think it’s cool. But was it the right game for this approach? That’s the debate I’m facing in development of the sequel. Should the balance be tilted further in the traditional direction? Now would be the time to do that… On the one hand, if I were to do it all over again, I’d definitely skew a few of these factors back in the traditional direction, and make trivial enemies more trivial and boss encounters more — uh, bossy. But on the other hand, I am working on a sequel, which should be faithful to the experience of the original.
Frayed Knights veterans, feel free to chime in here and let me know what you think!
(Oh, and if you aren’t a veteran, you can become one pretty easily. The first part of the adventure is even free:
And you can check out more details about the game rules from the free strategy guide. You don’t even need to own the game! )
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